Westerly – a review series: Eighth Grade

Dr. Nancy West, a longtime cinema member and Professor of English at The University of Missouri, writes about Ragtag films for our website.

Eighth Grade: two small words that evoke any number of wince-making associations: acne, body odor, gym class, oily hair, fumbling episodes of making out, and a soul-devouring envy of the cute and popular kids whose names and faces you still recall decades later. “A lot of bad shit,” as my friend recently remarked. Eighth grade was a long time ago for me, but this movie brought that shit back; it’s a visceral film. Be warned.

Eighth Grade is Bo Burnham’s debut movie about a 13-year-old girl named Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) trying to navigate her way through the final week of middle school. Burnham is a stand-up comic who was also one of YouTube’s first luminaries (at 17, the satirical songs he posted went viral). In an NPR interview, he said that he wanted to make a film that “simply walks viewers through” what eighth grade is like now, in the age of social media. And compared to a lot of teen movies, where kids wreck their dads’ Ferraris or turn their parents’ suburban home into a brothel, not much happens in Eighth Grade. Most of the film’s drama is inside Kayla’s head, her anxiety and self-consciousness concentrated in scenes of cringing verisimilitude. The most memorable: a pool party (remember those?) in which Kayla appears in an oddly-green swimsuit, bulges of baby fat spilling out of its sides. Convinced everyone is watching her, she dives underwater the first chance she gets. No one is watching her.

As its title suggests, Eighth Grade offers an almost anthropological look at the strange, primitive being known as the 13-year-old. It studies her with wry fascination, depicting mundane events like putting on makeup with over-the-top strategies such as zoom shots and slow-motion (not dissimilar, now that I think about it, to Planet Earth). At the same time, it is filled with moments of real poignancy, as in the scene where Kayla asks her father (played by Josh Hamilton) if it makes him “sad” to have her as a daughter (his shock that she would feel that way about herself is heartbreaking). This alternation between irony and emotionalism is one of the things I liked best about Eighth Grade.

I also loved Elsie Fisher as Kayla, maybe because, unlike most young actresses (Saoirse Ronan, say, or Thomasin Mckenzie), she is stubbornly ordinary. Playing Kayla, she moves awkwardly, hunches her shoulders, slumps at the lunch table. She also has a lot of pimples. But Burnham never takes his camera off of her. Attention, he says, must be paid to this girl.

Which brings me to that great thief of human attention and Eighth Grade’s other principal subject: digital technology. Kayla is tethered to her cell phone and laptop, scrolling through images—of celebrities, random strangers, her peers—deep into the night. Burnham portrays this with marked ambivalence; on the one hand, Kayla’s hyper-connectivity is pathetic and obsessive. On the other, it gives her a means of self-creation (she makes affirmational videos and posts them on her online channel, clearly enjoying the process). This ambivalence, I admit, is one of the film’s strengths. The trouble for me is that I can’t share it; I am deeply disturbed by our obsession with social media and our neurotic use of cell phones. Which is why, unlike a lot of viewers who have variously described it as “heartwarming,” “hopeful,” and “upbeat,” I found Burnham’s movie to be very, very sad.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that eighth grade is a crummy time of life. But what makes it worse for this generation are the pressures and dislocations of digital culture, which don’t end after eighth grade. We adults also stay up late at night with our iPhones, checking to see how many people liked our Facebook posts, friending people we barely know, texting one vacuous message after another. Watching this film, I couldn’t help but think that social media and our cell phones have sent us all back to eighth grade. Permanently, it seems.